Contrary to official denials, Islamic State is taking root deep in South Asia. In the second part of their ISIS Matrix investigation, Phill Hynes and Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee examine how a decentralized command structure has kept terrorists beyond the intelligence radar.
Long before the recent spate of attacks in Bangladesh, Islamic State was building deep positions. So, how did the combat and intelligence indicators miss – or misread – the signs?
The answer lies in a mix of systems tried and tested over decades and across continents by conventional military units. Put together, they make up the pool matrix.
At the broadest level, ISIS runs are a series of “sleeper pools.” Each operates independently from the parent organization and one another. They only combine in the event of a larger operation that requires greater human and physical resources.
Regardless of their role, individual members of each pool are commanded at local level. Although the strategic direction will come from higher up in the system, the pools effectively have autonomy. This serves to limit communication as well as the movement, transportation and acquisition of materials, thereby minimizing potential traces and infiltration. Organizationally, the system makes it simple to replace a current commander or an active member as the need arises.
Each pool conducts local operations according to the level of available terrorists and resources. Roles are split into active and support.
Commanders of the local pools combine to manage regional pools, with one of them taking charge as regional commander. The role comes with greatly increased powers and access to far greater human and logistical resources. This is similar to the concept of ‘Step Up Command’ employed by conventional armies. Further up the chain, several regional pools are then grouped, forming the next step up in command. Only a limited core of commanders from relevant target areas need get involved in planning attacks.
A further level higher controls the combined regional pools, with a single commander running an entire country or province.
Support pools gathering information follow the same structure. Intelligence work is carried out on an individual basis and is specific in nature. One support member might be tasked with finding out about security procedures at an airport within a specific time bracket, for example, while a second collates the same information for a different time period. Only the commander issuing instructions would know the overall task. He has the resources to detail as many support members as he determines is necessary to gather all of the bits of information.
Larger operations demand higher numbers of active participants and support, coordinated at a regional level through the same principle of multiple information tasking. Each terrorist has only one piece of the ‘jigsaw puzzle,’ meaning any breach or leak can be directly traced. Only the regional commander sees all of the pieces.
This complex command structure helps explain why – despite a degree of success in neutralizing local remnants – significant ISIS elements remain intact, posing a real and current risk.
Bangladesh isn’t alone in this challenge. European authorities believed within a matter of weeks of the Paris attacks that they had neutralised the entire group responsible, yet remnants of that same pool were behind the Brussels incidents. Ten months on, elements of this group at large, with reinforcements to replenish the depleted ranks.
The unknown quantity here is scale. While access to sophisticated weapons and explosives is limited, Bangladesh’s Islamists have managed to inflict mass casualties with rudimentary devices, from basic firearms to everyday machetes and knives. Even if the authorities have managed to halve the identified pools, a resilient network remains poised to attack. Losing the leader, or Emir, will provide only temporary relief.
The authors are Phill Hynes and Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee, analysts at ISS Risk, a frontier and emerging markets political risk management company covering North, South and Southeast Asia from headquarters in Hong Kong